August 03, 2017
(++++) BIRDS AND BUDDIES
Pigeon P.I. By Meg McLaren. Clarion. $16.99.
Penguins Love Their ABC’s. By Sarah Aspinall. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $17.99.
Thank You, Mr. Panda. By Steve Antony. Scholastic. $16.99.
There is nothing the slightest bit bird-brained about Meg McLaren’s Pigeon P.I., which is so packed with story and information that it is almost two books in one. There is the main noir-ish detective tale itself – slightly hard-boiled, although no eggs are harmed in its creation – and then there is the material from the inside front and inside back covers, a total of four pages of how-to-do-it information on avian-style private investigation. These pages should be read separately from those of the main narrative: they do include the two main characters, but here in instructional rather than investigational mode. The opening “beginner’s guide,” for instance, offers nine “detecting hats” (from fedora and deerstalker to boater and cloche) and a selection of possible snacks to carry along (from “delicious but noisy” chips to “quiet but impractical” Jell-o). The closing “advanced detection” inside-cover pages explain that you should “have a witty line ready when you solve your case,” and they include a bit of back-and-forth byplay called “discuss ideas with your partner” that, whether McLaren realizes it or not, virtually duplicates a very funny scene in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia Ltd. The four how-to-do-it pages are ancillary to the main Pigeon P.I. story, but they are so much fun in their own right that young readers (and parents) will double their enjoyment here. And the main story itself, crammed as it is with the tropes of hard-edged detective tales, is just wonderful. It starts with the usual down-and-out onetime detective who has thrown in the proverbial towel after his partner “skipped town a while back,” and who is lured back into the detecting game by a persistent dame. In this case the dame is a kid, and the kid is a chick, which makes sense when the gumshoe is a pigeon. It seems several of the kid’s friends have mysteriously disappeared, and then the kid herself suddenly goes missing, so Pigeon P.I. realizes he really needs to get on the case. And he does, while McLaren peppers the pages with incidental amusements such as a newspaper called “Pigeon Post” with a headline saying “House Prices Set to Soar” next to a picture of a birdhouse, and entryways to places called “Bird, Bath & Beyond” and “Legal Eagles.” Soon enough, Pigeon P.I. uncovers a dastardly plot, finds the many missing birds – who, it turns out, were birdnapped so a nefarious bad guy could pluck some of their feathers – and is told, “You’ve been sticking your beak where it doesn’t belong. …Cook his goose, boys.” Then there is a timely rescue, a newspaper headline saying “Plumage Plunderer Pinched,” and a suitably upbeat ending in which Pigeon P.I. and the kid are seen happily slurping takeout food from an establishment called “The Early Bird.” Adults who know the conventions of detective fiction will have a ball with this book – the “advanced detection” pages even include pictures of famous detectives such as “Monsieur Parrot” and “Duck Tracy” – and kids will have a great time with both the main story and the opening and closing detection guides. And as an extra bonus, both the book’s back cover and the back cover of its wraparound offer more amusements, the former showing a bulletin board with posters and notices (one of which says “please do not draw attention to this notice”) and the latter offering comments and commentary by pigeons that are not otherwise in the book on the events that take place within it. Story, ancillary story, meta story and more – Pigeon P.I. has them all, and all are thoroughly delightful.
Sarah Aspinall’s Penguins Love Their ABC’s is also lots of fun, but it is an altogether simpler and more-straightforward book – aimed at kids who are just learning the alphabet, not older ones who are ready to learn some of the ins and outs of detective stories. Like Aspinall’s previous book, Penguins Love Colors, this one features six identical and adorable penguins distinguished from each other by something colorful that is reflective of each one’s name – in this case, sunglasses whose colors make it easier to identify Tulip, Tiger Lily, Dandelion, Bluebell, Violet, and Broccoli. In this book the penguins are going on “an alphabet hunt” arranged by Mama Penguin: the little ones need to find things beginning with each letter, starting with “A is for apple” and including, for example, “C is for cactus” and “M is for magnifying glass” – this being shown on a two-page spread on which Broccoli is hugely magnified. Typical-for-alphabet-book words are here interspersed with less-usual ones, such as “N is for noodles,” “R is for radish” and “U is for underpants” – a chance to show all six little penguins wearing “lucky underpants” in different colors and patterns. By the end of the book, the penguins have found all the letters, Mama has praised them for their success, and it is time for a dinner of – what else? – alphabet soup. Gently instructive and cutely amusing, Penguins Love Their ABC’s is a winner of an alphabet book whose attractive characters and bright colors will encourage young readers to follow the six little penguins all the way from A to Z.
Thank You, Mr. Panda also features some interesting characters and is also a “lesson” book, but it is one that somewhat misfires and will be of most interest to readers already familiar with and enamored of Steve Antony’s panda character, as previously seen in Please, Mr. Panda and I’ll Wait, Mr. Panda. What keeps this book at the (+++) level is its rather odd handling of the reasonable and helpful notion that, when it comes to gift-giving, it is the thought rather than the gift itself that counts. The story involves Mr. Panda, accompanied by Lemur, giving presents to several animal friends – but none of the gifts is quite right. Lemur reminds each friend that it’s the thought that counts, and then Lemur gets the final gift himself – and is reminded by Mr. Panda, even before Lemur opens the gift, that the thought is what matters. The difficulty here is that it is apparent that Mr. Panda knows the gifts are wrong: Lemur gets underwear big enough for two of himself, Mouse gets a sweater so large that he can barely be seen within it, Octopus gets stockings for only six of his eight legs, and so on. The question is why Mr. Panda appears deliberately to give gifts that he knows are inadequate or the wrong size. The only answer would be that he is teaching the “thought that counts” lesson – but it seems rather unkind, if not exactly cruel, to teach the lesson by deliberately giving gifts that one knows to be useless. Lemur’s abundant joy when he finds out that the final gift is for him turns to bewilderment when he too gets a gift that Mr. Panda clearly knows is not right for him – and the inside back cover pages, showing all the animals trying to wear or use their presents but looking rather befuddled, are actually kind of sad. The “thought that counts” lesson is, after all, intended to mean that a well-intentioned gift that does not quite work is less important than the thought that inspired it. But Mr. Panda’s gifts seem to be on the sly side, designed to be wrong so Mr. Panda can teach his friends a lesson. That is rather manipulative and not really reflective of what “it’s the thought that counts” means. So Thank You, Mr. Panda is not a very good introduction to Antony’s Mr. Panda books and not a particularly winning way to explore the niceties of gift-giving. But for kids who already know Mr. Panda’s personality and like it, this book will be enjoyable even if its underlying message is not communicated as effectively as it could be.